Radicalizing yoga and bringing social justice to the mat

Yoga teacher and activist Michelle C. Johnson talks to Nonviolence Radio about her book "Skill In Action."

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When I think of yoga and nonviolence, I think of protesters doing tree-pose in mass demonstrations. I don’t, however, think of a yoga studio. Michelle C. Johnson changed my mind on this. Consider it this way: Yoga is more than poses we do with our bodies to stretch. It’s more than expensive studio memberships and yoga gear. It is, as described in the classical Hindu text, The Bhagavad Gita, “skill in action,” a path to recognizing our deep interconnectedness and healing our divides.

Listen to insights from Michelle C. Johnson on the power of radicalizing yoga practice in order to invite the hard work of social justice onto our mats, and into the rest of our lives. (Even if you don’t do yoga, this show is for you.) Followed by Michael Nagler’s Nonviolence Report.

Yoga teacher and “Skill In Action” author Michelle C. Johnson. (Facebook/Michelle C. Johnson)

Stephanie: Welcome everybody to another episode of Nonviolence Radio. I’m your host, Stephanie Van Hook, and I’m here in the studio with my co-host and news anchor Michael Nagler. Nonviolence Radio explores the power of active nonviolence, and today we are talking with Michelle Cassandra Johnson who is with us from North Carolina. Welcome to the show, Michelle.

Michelle: Thank you so much for inviting me.

Stephanie: You’re a yoga teacher. You’re a social justice activist. You’re a licensed clinical social worker, and a dismantling racism trainer. In your book, “Skill in Action,” which we want to talk about today, you explain trainings in this work as well. We hope to unpack what is inside of this book to see how important these trainings are in our world, especially in our political climate today.

When I read “Skill in Action,” I get the impression that your approach to yoga is more than hatha yoga, more than just doing the poses of yoga. So, I was wondering if maybe we can start there. How do you perceive yoga as a tool for social justice work?

Michelle: Well, I came to yoga teacher training as an anti-racism trainer. I already had an activist lens and experience of talking about power and how it’s been constructed, of identity and how culture has created identities for us, and has made me aware of them. I have that lens. And I’m a black woman, so I have that lens too. So, I went into yoga teacher training.

And there, it really began to click for me, this idea of the intersection of yoga and justice: when my teacher was going over the yoga philosophy, in particular, two parts of the Eight Limb Path. One is called, “The yama,” and one is called, “The niyama.”

The yamas are really about how we treat other people. The niyamas are more about how we treat ourselves. These are considered like ethical principles in this practice of yoga. An example of one yama, because that’s where it really connected for me, is nonviolence. The Sanskrit is ahimsa and it translates to nonviolence. And another one is satya, which is truth, and there are others about greedlessness and non-feeling. When I heard those and read them and studied them with the other teachers, I just thought, “Oh, these are sensible for how we actually create a just world.” Like this is how we actually get to the justice that we want to create in this world.”

That’s where I began to really think, how do these things intersect? Other places where it deepened my curiosity about the intersection of justice and yoga, was after having several experiences of going to yoga classes and being the only person of color in the room, and you know, that’s similar to my experience of interacting with other institutions and not being represented, not being heard, not necessarily being seen.

In yoga spaces I started to ask seriously about why more people of color, folks of disabilities, and people of different ages — why is this space not more diverse? I just realized that these spaces reflect how other institutions have been constructed. That really made me think about my training in anti-racism and anti-oppression work. It made me think about the industry of yoga versus the essence of the practice.

The essence is like the yama and niyama, as going in, us learning meditation, us moving through us-ness, right? The industry is more where capitalism, where yoga became a business, which I think just replicates the ways in which people are marginalized continually in the system.

Stephanie: In a way, the capitalist system reinforces materialist practice, in a way that says, “This is just about how you look on the outside, how fit your body is,” but this has nothing to do with the intention of what you draw out in your training and your book, “Skill in Action,” of going beyond the yoga mat, using yoga as a way in, as a doorway into experiencing the world in a more just way.

Michelle: Yeah. Part of it is like the focus on us more, which is what you’re talking about, which is movement. That’s how a lot of people enter into the practice here in this country. And then I think part of it is about who has access to wellness, right? Who has access to yoga? It costs money to go out. It costs money to go to a yoga teacher training. To have a continual practice when you can study with a teacher, you have to invest in that.

I think of who’s been left out and who has lack of access to yoga. It’s the same when we think about other institutions, like health care. Who does not have access to health care, education, or resources? And so, I look at it that way, that it’s similar. How is yoga, because it’s a business for so many people, how has it been set up as an institution and how is that replicating barriers or creating barriers for people so they can’t actually engage with this practice?

Stephanie: What I hear you saying too, is that when we turn that around and we start to explore a yoga studio and yoga practice as spaces for social justice, that it’s actually more fulfilling, that there’s more to discover, that there’s something magical that can happen in those spaces, something sacred that can happen in those spaces. Can you speak to that?

Michelle: Yeah. I think that for me, it’s about really living the universal truth that yoga has taught me, which is that there’s no separation. If there’s no separation for me, it means that I need to pay attention to what’s going on outside of the yoga space. I need to pay attention to what’s going on in my community, in my state, in the world, right? And in our country.

And when I say, “Pay attention,” I mean I need to look at who’s actually not in the room and who doesn’t have access. I need to understand more about the social issues that are going on. I need to understand why people are isolated and feeling isolated. Because that’s one of the reasons we suffer, right? According to the yogic path, one reason we suffer is because of this isolation. We believe we’re alone.

There are institutions that actually make it so that people are alone in their suffering, not resourced, not well, and not cared for. This idea of no separation is that every time I walk into a yoga studio and step onto my mat, or even when I do practice at home, I’m thinking about who’s outside of my home or who’s outside that room.

I think that’s my practice, that there’s no separation. It’s not just about there not being separation between me and the other people in the room, it’s an awareness of who’s actually not allowed to be in this room right now. It doesn’t feel like they can be here anyway. I think people are longing to have spaces to talk about what’s going on in their communities and their culture and our country. I think people are seeking that.

I feel like some people are invited into in yoga spaces to escape from what’s happening outside of the room. That doesn’t feel like yoga to me. I feel when I invite people into noticing the practice is about something much bigger than them, that, classically, it’s about something much bigger than us in the room. I think that it allows them to begin to understand that they’re in relationship with other people living on this planet, that we have a responsibility to one another. We have a responsibility to care for each other. I think that’s what I’m really inspiring people to think about and process.

Stephanie: I think you are too. In my experience with your book, which has asked me to think about this work more deeply, I feel like your intent has come through. Because you’re so matter-of-fact about it, that this is how it is, I’m like, “Yeah, it is.” But when I’ve gone into yoga studios, I’ve been told when I step on my mat, “Leave everything outside the room, outside of the room. Forget everything that happened in your day. This is where you are now.”

Can you speak to that? Is that where you’re going? That is, when we go into the yoga studio, we’re bringing our bodies. We’re bringing our experiences of the day. We’re bringing the challenges that society is facing with us. We’re not going into the yoga space to cut ourselves off from the world.

Michelle: Right. Yes. That is definitely what I’m offering to people. In addition to a practice of radical process, I have invited students into being in the present moment with what is, and when I say that, I mean instead of being in the past and experiencing regret or going to the future and experiencing anticipation. I’ve said that multiple times in classes.

When I’m inviting people to be in the present moment, I’m really saying, “Be with what is.” Everything you just named, the things that we’ve experienced throughout the day, what’s going on in our communities, the things we’re concerned about and the things that break our hearts, right? I’m inviting people to be present to that. And then to move with that instead of avoiding it or denying it. I’m inviting people into seeing that they have a relationship with every being around them, the people in this space and the people outside of this space.

I think we can do both at the same time. I think it inspires people to really begin to wonder, “What is this practice about and what is it meant for?” And if it’s not just an individual principle and experience, how do I translate that to the collective and to my relationship with people and all beings on the planet?

Stephanie: I was reading in Yes! Magazine, their latest issue, on building bridges just yesterday. And john powell from the Haas Center for Inclusion and Diversity at UC Berkeley was writing about this as a metaphor of bridge building. As you know, bridges, we walk on bridges. And there’s the opposite of bridge building which is bridge breaking. It made me think of the practice of yoga, of literal poses — like bridge pose — and how these poses are more than just stretching our bodies.

If we think that it’s actually asking us to embody that moment, this larger spiritual value of building a bridge, of being the bridge — do you explore that in your yoga practice too, that these poses invite us into embodying value?

Michelle: Yes. I think we do that with a bridge or any heart opener. What does it actually mean in your heart to be vulnerable and to be brave? And to open into something, even if you don’t completely understand it, even as you’re wanting to like constrict around it so it’s not open? What is like to practice opening instead of retreating?

People get overwhelmed by what’s going on in the culture, and sometimes they retreat if they have that privilege to retreat. Not all of us have that. Then I think about poses like forward pose, which are all about humility. What does it mean to be humble and to do this work and to be engaged in a practice that is about something much bigger than us, and that has the capacity to shift the way we are individually and collectively?

So I think the embodied piece is really powerful. Again, because it helps a lot of people into the practice. There’s a way to practice with embodied asana part of yoga, just as an individual, and there’s a way to apply it to how we are in the world, right? I think it can look easy to people when I do it, and it’s not.

It took me thinking about and really studying the principles and really being in my body, connecting to what it feels like to move into an expression of a heart opener when I don’t want to do that. Because the world feels like it’s completely overwhelming, and I’m not sure what to do. I feel vulnerable as a black person living at this time.

And so, what is it like to lean in? I definitely talk about these things and move people to an embodied practice. It’s bigger than the actual mechanical movement. It’s not just about where I place my hand. It’s how I place my hand. What does it mean that I’m placing it down on the mat with intention? How can that translate into me being intentional as I engage with people – people that I don’t know and people I’m in relationship with?

Stephanie: Beautiful. You also talk about consent with other people’s bodies in the room. Can you speak to that too because I think that there’s something that unlocks a deeper understanding of our relationship to people in that setting.

Michelle: There’s also been a lot of things coming up about consent culture in yoga spaces because of a history of crossing boundaries and people beginning to see the teacher not respecting people’s boundaries and bodies. That’s creating a culture of consent. What I wrote in the book was that we do need to get permission if we’re going to be adjusting people physically, putting our hands on them and moving them in some way.

We need to create a culture where we can talk about touch, where people can experience that if they want that, and we need to be asking permission. People have the right to change their mind at any point in the practice, and there are different ways to do that. People have consent cards, people can have little chits that they put on their mat, or some communication system saying, “Yes, I’m okay with an adjustment,” or, “No, I’m not okay.”

The other way that I wrote about it is being in a black body, being asked to adjust my body, and my being aware all the time of how whiteness has been prioritized and constructed. I’m asked to shapeshift outside of the yoga space, many times. I’m asked to be silent. I’m asked to speak for people, to speak up more because you represent every black person, which I don’t, right? I’m asked to, like, move.

There’s a story in the book about being stopped by a police officer, about how I felt like I couldn’t move because of what was going on in the culture. I didn’t know what the consequences would be if I moved in a particular way. And, you know, several people have talked to me about that in the book, because they’ve never really thought about it that way.

So when I’m in a room, even if I’ve given consent for touch, if the teacher is continually adjusting me, I might feel like something is wrong. The other thing that happens is that I lose agency. There’s self-determination in this practice too for people, about how they move. I think sometimes adjustments take away agency. Even as we’re trying to deepen the experience of the practice, we can take away power in those moments.

Especially if we’re not considering people’s identities and how they may be asked to shapeshift in a way that you’re feeling, culturally – how we’re asked to be something different than we are. Which means we actually we can’t be. We have to be something other than be us.

That’s happening to people who are marginalized all the time. I would love yoga teachers to have that lens, not to be afraid to touch with consent, to have the lens that shows that my experience is not like everyone else’s experience so I might feel an adjustment differently than someone else.

Stephanie: Hearing the way that you’re conveying the work that can happen in the yoga studio opens up the doorway to our entire culture. You talk about radicalizing our yoga practice, and the way that the studio represents a microcosm of the entire culture. When we work well in that small area, somehow, it’s having an affect on an entire culture; we can create spaces where we practice doing it right.

That becomes a form of social justice activism, and one that’s manageable because it’s not a huge group of everybody. You’re focusing on a specific audience which are yoga practitioners, yoga studios. And in those spaces, you’re saying, “We’re going to go to the next step together here.” Do you feel that way, or do you feel differently about that?

Michelle: Yeah, I think that a lot of what “Skill in Action” offers is the inner work, the inner transformational work. We’re doing that inner work in group process. When I go lead a workshop, it’s inner work, we’re in a group, we have different identities. We’re practicing what it means to work across difference in real time as we’re doing the inner work.

The inner work is about reflection. It’s also about movement. It’s about relationship. It’s about people asking questions that may be awkward or messy, and me holding the space and responding, and staying in relationship with them in that moment.

People are watching how I respond. If someone may have said something that caused harm to me, how do I respond in those moments? I’m not perfect at it. I just practice. I’ve had a lot of experience trying to stay grounded and centered for these people who might be doing something or saying something that is really from their lack of awareness or from their cultural conditioning. I’ve had a lot of practice in just breathing and resourcing myself, and then responding.

I think how you described it is how it happens. I know that once I leave a workshop, people have more questions than they had when they walked into the workshop. There’s a ripple effect, they’re going out and talking about it. Essentially, I’m offering anti-oppression, anti-racism framework in the context of a yoga studio as we’re moving through asana and practice. And we’re, as I said, doing the inner work in group process time.

Stephanie: I want to get some tips for our readers in this interview from Michelle Cassandra Johnson’s Top Five Tips for incorporating concepts of dismantling racism, that is, of incorporating “Skill in Action” into their lives, whether or not they’re yoga practitioners. One of the things I’ve heard you say – I think, is that you bring your own personal experience into your practice. You’re not doing this for some disconnected reason. You’re doing it for self-realization, in a way, like of opening yourself. I also hear you talking about practicing breathing, just as ideas to throw out there. But do you have some tips for our listeners for ways of incorporating some of this on a daily basis?

Michelle: Yeah. The book has practices after each section. I think there’s a total of five practices specifically, or meditations. All of them actually incorporate meditation. There’s also an activity where people think about the identity they embody. The book goes into identities and the identities that culture assigns, or their oppressed identities – however people think about themselves.

In that activity people are thinking about their unique position to make change based on their identities and who they are. I’m not saying what their identities are, I’m offering the frame of language and oppression. I’m not saying what people have to write down. I’m not prescribing that. I think this relates to a practice called, “Social location.”

Really noticing, what identity am I bringing into this space? What’s the context? How has this space been set up? Who else is in this space that is like me? If I know that, who else is different than me? Especially if we’re going to have a conversation that will bring up any kind of conflict or different perspectives, or we’re in a practice of working across difference. Social location is really about knowing how I’m showing up in this space.

And then being strategic about how I respond as soon as something arises. Of course, that takes time. So, I would say the first is to notice your identity. Learn more about what culture says about identities. Learn about the ones that have been assigned power, and the ones that have had power stripped away by culture, right? And then notice how that affects how you show up in different spaces. That awareness is like a constant practice.

Another practice is to notice how you interact with people that are different than you, how you respond to people who are different than you, and what needs to be different? Coupled with that, people that may have a different experience and work with suffering.

Another thing to consider is this work is about self-actualization. This is like my soul work. This is my duty in the world. This is so for the collective. I’m always thinking about the collective. And yes, my life may benefit from this in some way. While I’m talking about anti-racism, or just mentioning it, I’m also experiencing it.

This is really about an awareness that I’m connected to other beings and I have my work to do. And that’s connected to how change will happen collectively. I’m always thinking about this. It’s not an individual experience for me. It doesn’t feel that way. It’s tied to something bigger. I’d ask people or invite people to think about what that is, like what that something bigger is for them. Because that can ground them in this practice.

And the other tip is resourcing yourself with the breath and making space for people to breathe. That’s the frame I use. What does it mean that some of us can’t breathe and how do we make space to breathe?

The last tip is – this isn’t easy, right? People who want to engage in inner-work, any inner-transformational work, particularly in group process, and if it’s related to working across difference, people need to sign up for this for the long haul. When it gets tricky and people are challenging and people want to retreat, I invite people to lean in. That’s a practice. That’s the practice in resilience. The spiritual practice in yoga can actually support us in being resilient. So, that’s the last tip I’ll offer.

Stephanie: Those are beautiful. We’re running low on time and I knew this was going to be too short and quick an interview because there’s so much we can talk about. We didn’t get to talk yet even about the Bhagavad Gita and how you incorporate the idea that we are all Arjuna in that story. So, can you just briefly tell the story of Arjuna and the relevance and inspiration that you found in the Gita’s story of this warrior prince?

Michelle: Yes. I will invite people to get a copy of the Gita, a translation of the Bhagavad Gita. There’s also a book called, “The Warrior Self,” by Ted Cox, which is not a direct translation. He takes some verses from the Gita, translates them, and also writes about how he responds during these times when there’s an internal war going on in an external world. The Gita is really about that. Arjuna is a warrior. Krishna is his guide. Arjuna’s dharma is to fight a war, but he knows people on both sides when he goes out to fight and he doesn’t want to fight.

The Gita says the same thing over and over in different ways. Krishna is teaching Arjuna a practice that will help him sustain his dharma and live into his dharma, and he’s doing it in different ways. The Gita also highlights how Arjuna resists his dharma, and ultimately, how he moves into it and moves into his duty.

And so, the Gita, for me, is what I said earlier about this being my duty, like there’s a higher purpose for us being here, however people think about that. There’s some reason we’re alive at this time, and we have a role. The Gita is really about actionable yoga. It really is about justice.

And so, how do we live into our role given that we have a space on the planet right now? What do we notice about resistance and what brings us back to the path? There’s so much more about the Gita. But in the book, I wrote about how all of us are Arjuna. We all are Arjuna right now, given what’s going on in our culture. We have to respond, and we can do it in different ways.

Part of this is practice is discovering our dharma, our duty, what way we need to do it, what way we need to create change.

Stephanie: Michelle Cassandra Johnson, author of “Skill in Action: Radicalizing Your Yoga Practice to Create a Just World.” How can people get more involved in your work, get your book, be in touch?

Michelle: You can find me michellecjohnson.com. My website has the book, how to get the book. It has a bunch of events. I travel all over the country and teach. It has some podcasts and interviews, lots, even more. A lot of good information there about the work and resources for people. That’s the best way to find me.

Stephanie: Great. It’s been a blessing to have you with us. Thank you so much.

Michelle: Thank you so much.

Transcription by Matthew Watrous.

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